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What does Joel Fitzgibbon think of this?

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15 May 2008 12:09

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates is proving himself quite the provocateur. He has given speeches advocating increased funding for US soft power, he has criticised the US Air Force for being old fashioned, and now he says elements of the US military are prone to what he calls 'Next-War-itis', which he defines as:

...the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict. This inclination is understandable, given the dominant role the Cold War had in shaping America’s peacetime military, where the United States constantly strove to either keep up with or get ahead of another superpower adversary. 

And, certainly, one cannot predict the future with any certainty. Soon after 1900, Winston Churchill said that he could not foresee any “collision of interests” with Germany. In the 1920s, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he said that there wasn’t the “slightest chance” of war with Japan in his lifetime. Today, rising and resurgent powers with new wealth and ambition are pursuing military modernization programs. They must be watched closely and hedged against. 

But in a world of finite knowledge and limited resources, where we have to make choices and set priorities, it makes sense to lean toward the most likely and lethal scenarios for our military. And it is hard to conceive of any country confronting the United States directly in conventional terms – ship to ship, fighter to fighter, tank to tank – for some time to come. The record of the past quarter century is clear: the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Israelis in Lebanon, the United States in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Smaller, irregular forces – insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists – will find ways, as they always have, to frustrate and neutralize the advantages of larger, regular militaries. And even nation-states will try to exploit our perceived vulnerabilities in an asymmetric way, rather than play to our inherent strengths. Overall, the kinds of capabilities we will most likely need in the years ahead will often resemble the kinds of capabilities we need today.

(A quick aside: Washington Post columnist Bill Arkin has expressed some frustration with Gates' tone in speeches like this, where Gates 'takes on' the brass. Gates is the Secretary of Defense, so why does he sound like a commentator railing against the Pentagon-weapons manufacturer axis, rather than like someone who has the authority to actually lead the military where he wants it to go?)

Gates raises issues directly relevant to Australian defence policy and the upcoming White Paper, and in particular to the 'combat capability edge' debate that I have raised on the blog, and on which Rory Medcalf has written an op-ed. As Hugh White has written recently, no matter how difficultit is to make good judgments about the threats we are likely to face in future, if it's done properly it can work and it can help us build a relevant defence force rather than one which is a jack of all trades and master of none.

Gates clearly agrees, and equally clearly, has come to the conclusion that the US needs to focus on unconventional warfare, and that building a Cold War-like force to meet a China threat is a lower priority. Australia faces similar choices: do we maintain the capability to deter or defeat a conventional military force in our region, or focus more on the kind of tasks that the military has been so engaged in over the last decade and more, peacekeeping and reconstruction?

Joel Fitzgibbon may not want to preempt the White Paper too much, but it would be interesting to hear his views on these questions, and it would be useful for him to generate some further debate. Let's hear it, Joel.

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